Thursday, October 12, 2017

Drawing In and Roasting Squash

Little yellow crookneck squash you're going to get roasted.
For the last couple of weeks I've been drawn more inside. Even when the weather is gorgeous, as it was this afternoon, I feel more compelled to do indoor chores. The garden still presents plenty of things to do, but I feel no urgency to do them. And when the mornings are chilly, as they have been the last few days, I focus inside.

It's just part of the cycle. Autumn arrives and things move inward and downward. Perennial plants begin pulling their energy into the roots. Leaves turn colors and fall to the ground. Late annuals pull out all of the stops, flowering and setting seed at a rapid pace to live up to their biological destiny: reproduction. Then they droop and drop.

And I am drawn inward, literally and figuratively. I spend my mornings on household tasks. And I feel like cooking! It's not that I hate cooking, but during the summer I try to avoid kitchen time as much as possible. Now I start my day in the kitchen -- and not just on breakfast.

During the summer I did spend my share of time in the kitchen. What am I supposed to do with all of that summer squash, after all? Green beans, long beans, peppers, and so on. I race through the snapping, chopping, steaming, roasting, etc., so I can get back outside. Today I take my time in the kitchen.

A couple of posts ago I promised to instruct you on how I make Roasted Summer Squash with Apples. So here it is. The squash was really, really, I mean Really productive this year. I made a lot of this stuff (and even froze some), as well as other squashy things.

Ready for the oven.
Use a shallow glass baking dish, such as the one above. It is about 10.5x15 inches and about 2 inches deep. Print on the bottom says it's 4.8 quarts (4.5 liters). You can use any size dish, depending on how much squash you have.

Ingredients
Summer squash (zucchini might work, too)
Medium size red onion
Apples (2 to 3 medium size ones for this size of dish)
Avocado oil or high quality extra virgin olive oil
Salt
Pepper

Cut up vegetables and apples and place in dish. Do no fill much more than half full. If the baking dish is too full, it will take longer for the vegetables to cook and you won't get that nice, roasted flavor. It will be more like steamed or boiled.

Coat vegetables with oil. I like to just drizzle some oil over the vegetables in the pan and work them with my hand until the vegetables are well coated. Or you can dump the vegetables into a large bowl, drizzle with oil, toss with a wooden spatula until well coated and then place back in pan.

Add salt and pepper. Place in a preheated 400-degree oven for an hour or a little longer if you want them super soft. You should see some browning. Stir every 15 minutes, scraping vegetables off the bottom and sides.

Remove from oven. Serve hot, or keep in refrigerator to eat cold or reheat. Add toasted pecans for a special touch.

You can also roast the squash without the onions and apples. That's how I started doing it. Then I thought, "I'll bet that would be really good with onions. Ooo. Oooo. And apples!" You can vary the amount of onion and apples, and even add different seasonings as your whim desires.

You can roast just about any vegetable. Okra, eggplant, celery and tomato. 
While I roasted the above pan of squash and apples today, I also roasted up some okra that's been languishing in the refrigerator, with some summer's end eggplant, chopped celery, and a few golf ball size Black Vernaisse tomatoes that were sitting on the counter. I seasoned it with oregano, smoked paprika, and a hint of cayenne. Prepare it just like the summer squash, but it only needed about 30-45 minutes in the oven.

While I was processing the summer squash this summer, I also simply steamed some (for 6 minutes, stirring halfway through) and froze it to use later in stir-fries and other dishes. But most of the squash got roasted, or dehydrated.

The dehydrated squash is like chips -- addictive. I thinly sliced the squash (about 1/8 inch thick), salted the slices (I believe this not only enhances the flavor, but draws out water and makes the dried squash crisper), and placed in the dehydrator until crispy (135 degrees F. if you've got one with a thermostat). I bet you can't eat just one.







Saturday, October 7, 2017

Apples of my Eye

Recipes; who needs 'em?

At least I didn't need one to make some awesome apple butter.

Three bags of apples in the refrigerator needed to be used pretty soon, before their already rotten spots ate the whole apple. I've already stuck plenty of baked apples with cinnamon and other spices in the freezer to thaw later, and bake again with a crust. Or just thaw... or not. That stuff is really good frozen, too. But enough is enough.

So how do you cook down three bags of apples with a minimum of fuss, and a significant reduction of volume?

Slow cooker apple butter.

I cut up apples until my 6-quart slow cooker was slightly overfull, set the lid on (it didn't go down all the way, at first), plugged in the slow cooker (this is a really, really important step), turned it on low (another important step) and walked away for 16 hours or so. I did stir it a few times, but not while I was sleeping.

The resulting thick, buttery goo was oh so delicious.

I wanted to can this amazingly simple, single ingredient wonder, but wasn't sure if I needed to add a bit of acid first, so I started looking for recipes for canning apple butter. Most of the Web sites that had apple butter recipes didn't say anything about adding vinegar or some other acid before canning. However, all of the recipes from places that are supposed to know food safety (like Extension, you know, the Web sites with the .edu at the end) said to add vinegar, quite a lot of vinegar in my opinion.

Meh. That much vinegar would really affect the flavor. I knew that you can substitute concentrated lemon juice for vinegar when canning, and my notes indicated that I could use half the amount of bottled lemon juice as vinegar. I didn't have any lemon juice. So I froze most of the first batch (except for a pint to spread on the grain-free breads I've learned to make) and started a second batch, filling not only the 6-quart slow cooker, but the 3-quart one, as well. And my delightfully helpful husband picked up some bottled lemon juice when he went into town for some appointments.

But you know what else I had "forgotten" in my first batch of apple butter, according to every single recipe I came across? Apple juice and sugar. Sugar? Apples are sweet enough fresh and raw, you go cooking them down, concentrating all that flavor and natural sugar, and you have lots of sweetness. Why in the world do you need to add sugar? Are you people addicted?!?

Take a deep breath, girl.

OK. I'm better. But really, why add so much sugar to something already so sweet? And the apple juice, forget it. I cooked all of my apple butter without one drop of apple juice, except that which came out of the apples. It was fine. And I didn't have to leave the lid slightly off (as all of the recipes said to do) so that the extra liquid would evaporate. I didn't have any extra liquid. Some might think that adding the apple juice or cider gives extra flavor. But my homegrown apples of several varieties needed no extra flavor. This stuff is ambrosia.

So I canned the second batch. The lemon juice did not ruin the flavor, but actually gave it a nice little zip.

So here's my recipe for apple butter.
Apples
1 slow cooker

Cut up the apples until the slow cooker is full. Put on the lid, plug in the slow cooker and turn it to low. Go do something else. Stir it. Go to bed and sleep all night. In the morning look at it, stir it, and go do something else until it is the consistency you want. Grab your immersion blender and blend that ambrosia to a smooth consistency, or not. Eat some of it while it's hot. Eat some more when it's cold. Put it on toast. Put it on ice cream (dairy or non-dairy). Put it in yogurt (ditto). Or just eat it all by itself. But be careful. That's a lot of apple on that spoon.

So you want to can it.
I used 3/4 to 1 cup of bottled lemon juice for the 6-quart cooker. (If your cooker is a different size, just do a little simple math.) The volume of apple butter was less than half the volume of the cut up apples. You can add the lemon juice while the apple butter is still bubbling in the slow cooker. The butter must be hot when you can it. But I had to wait for the lemon juice, so I refrigerated it and reheated it to boiling the next day. Be careful; this goo is like lava. The butter wasn't even getting warm when the first bubble rose up and splattered apple butter with a "bloop!" Fortunately, I had the lid on. Use a lid and carefully lift it and stir, often, to prevent the lava explosions and to prevent scorching.

Start heating the water in the canner before you start bringing the sauce to a boil. Have clean jars, new lids, and rings at the ready. When the canner is boiling hard, fill the jars (leave a half inch "head space" at the top), wipe the rims clean, put the lids on and screw the rings on tightly. Set the jars in the rack and lower them into the boiling water, replace the lid, and process for...

...the first recipe said five minutes for pints, but if you process for 10 minutes or more you don't need to sterilize the jars first. So I processed my pints for 15 minutes, just to be sure. Food safety first.

Remove the jars from the canner and set on a clean dish towel on the counter to cool. No sound is so sweet as the "tink, tink" of the lids as the jars seal. Yay! 


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Autumn

Grimes Golden, Enterprise, Tydeman's Late Orange, Freedom, Liberty, Haralson -- all tasty apple varieties from our trees.
We are less than two weeks past the Autumn Equinox and the season is in obvious decline. A scattering of leaves litters the ground and summer vegetables have significantly slowed production.

All but two of the tomato plants have been retired. They looked puny and were no longer setting on flowers, so I picked all of the useable tomatoes, green and red, and pulled out the vines. The remaining plants look fairly lush yet and continue to produce, so I will leave them until frost, or they start looking really bad, whichever comes first. Mixed feelings filled me as I pulled the tomatoes. On one hand I love the dried tomatoes and roasted tomatoes I've put away, and part of me wants to keep collecting more. On the other hand, it's one less thing to do. I can focus on other tasks. Ditto with the summer squash.

One of the beds of summer squash has been cleared -- between the squash bugs and powdery mildew the plants were dying. The second bed of squash has been significantly reduced, as I've cut off most of the worst looking leaves and dead vines. But the plants continue to set on tender squash, so I will leave those in place until they die off more. Later today I plan to do another batch of roasted squash with apples. (Instructions in a later post.) This simple way of doing the summer squash will work nicely with winter squash and sweet potatoes.

It's apple time here in northeast Kansas, actually well past apple time on our farm. The trees have been cleaned of fruit by the joint efforts of me and the neighborhood squirrels. I picked the apples a little earlier than I would have prefered because the fruit started to disappear. We had a really good crop of apples and I am selfish. I did not want them all to go to the squirrels. The good news is that they were ripe enough that after some time in the fridge, the apples have sweetened up. Numerous batches of spiced baked apples have been put in the freezer for later dates. Many jars of dried apple slices line the pantry shelf. Sometime in the next few days I will pull out the crock pots and cook up some apple butter, which will go very nicely with the grain-free breads we've recently learned to bake. And, of course, more apples will go into my roasted summer squash pan (and future sweet potato roasts).

Even in the state of decline, the garden continues to produce abundance. Although their leaves are tattered by the munching of various insects and their larvae, the morning glories continue to be glorious. Their morning displays will continue until frost. The recent cloudy, cool mornings extend the time of bloom, so they don't close up until after noon. The nasturtiums, which struggle during hot weather, are blooming profusely. Spicey blossoms for my meals. Some of the leaves will go into my mixed greens ferment, as soon as I get around to pulling it all together. It was a mighty tasty ferment last year.

And the sweet potatoes... the vines are lush and have grown through the protective fencing and onto the path. I've noticed where the deer or rabbits have nibbled off leaves, and that's fine. Soon I will cut back the vines and dig the orange roots, and some purple roots too. I love sweet potatoes. A few years ago, a dedicated group of market farmers had October declared Sweet Potato Month in Kansas. Events were scheduled and a fun time was had. I have not seen any events planned this year yet, but the Celebrate Sweet Potatoes - Lawrence, Ks., Facebook page remains active. So I have hopes.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

New Discovery about Old Friends

I've been growing purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) for years, decades even. So why didn't I know they had such a lovely fragrance?

Two or three weeks ago while pulling weeds from the path near this mass of coneflower I paused and wondered what that lovely fragrance was. Bumblebees buzzed around the flowers, sipping nectar. Could it be...?

I brought my nose next to a spiked flower and inhaled. Oh my. What a lovely fragrance.

This lady likes echinacea, too.
The flowers only release mass quantities of fragrance when it's warm and humid. At least that's one bonus of warm, humid mornings that cause me to break a sweat without trying.

I love this wonderful plant even more.

I grow four species of Echinacea and apparently a hybrid now. Not only E. purpurea, but also E. pallida, the species that grows in local prairies; E. angustifolia, the one considered the official "medicinal" echinacea; E. paradoxa with its bright yellow flowers and an orange variation. And now I have one that is possibly a cross between paradoxa and either pallida or purpurea, with pale yellow petals.

One tiny seedling of the rare E. tennesseensis grows in a pot on my front porch. I won't claim to grow five species until it finds its home in the soil somewhere in the garden.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Apples of My Eye

These are Liberty apples on a tree at the edge of the garden near the house. It's been a reliable little tree and not as prone
to thievery as the apple trees at the bottom of the hill where we can't watch them as closely.
All of our apples trees bear heavy loads this year. We've been planning to share the crop -- wormy as it might be since we've done no spraying -- with family and friends. We planted way too many apple trees while dreaming about selling organic apples at the farmers market.

But growing apples organically in Kansas is tough and selling at farmers market will remain just a dream for us. If we had it to do over again we would plant far fewer fruit trees and more berries.

We've not got way too many apples for ourselves. We figure we'll just let others come and pick for themselves.

Well others are coming to pick our apples... uninvited. And they're not the human kind of thieves.

For the past week or two we've watched the apples on the William's Pride tree grow redder and redder. The usual harvest time for that variety is August, so I wasn't getting too eager to pick them, although from a distance they sure looked ready.

They must have been ready, for on his daily walk yesterday morning my husband noticed that nearly all of the apples on that tree were gone, except for about a dozen that were still half green. During the night squirrels and/or raccoons and/or opossums had an apple picking party.

My visions of baked apple deliciousness were dashed. On the other hand I don't have to figure out what to do with all of those apples. Yesterday evening I went down and picked all of the remaining apples that I could reach from the ground. That should be enough. Even half green they taste pretty good, and they're pretty clean, not terribly wormy.

I'll watch the other trees more closely and when the apples start looking ripe, I'll call in the family and friends for an apple picking party, with human guests this time.

Monday, July 10, 2017

So... Rabbits Again

Rabbits: the perpetual curse. Or is it a blessing in disguise? I go back and forth.

I jokingly (half jokingly) refer to them as our "pet" rabbits. Looked at from one perspective, we are encroaching on their space, changing the environment. If I provide an easy food source for them, why shouldn't they take advantage.

I get along with the rabbits by building fences around the things they most like to eat (young pea plants, bean plants, chard, beets, sweet potatoes, strawberries, and apparently young okra plants. The deer also like to strawberry and sweet potato plants, so I have to put a chicken wire "top" on those beds to keep the deer from reaching over, or simply stepping over the two-foot tall rabbits fences. The deer seem easier to thwart than the rabbits, though.

Radishes. Rabbits don't seem to like radishes. They're safe without a fence.
Erecting chicken wire fences makes for an extra gardening task, but it's worth it to save the frustration of having my plants eaten, and it detracts less from the aesthetics than the white row cover. Besides, if I plan correctly I don't need to take all of them down and put them back up at the end of the season. For example, I'll leave up the fence around the sweet potatoes and plant peas and/or beans there next year. The fence around the strawberries just stays, since they are a perennial crop.

Row cover can't be considered a fool proof barrier against rabbits anyway. Two years ago (or was it last year?) a crafty rabbit learned that it can get to my tasty bush beans by tearing a hole in the row cover.

Or if I trap baby bunnies inside (How was I supposed to know they were there?) a row covered tunnel mama will readily tear her way in. A few weeks ago I had left the row cover off of the cabbages to facilitate the path rehabilitation project -- and doesn't it look nice. Before putting the row cover back in place I sprayed with Bt to take care of any cabbage eating larvae that might hatch out. The next day I noticed a large hole in the end of one of the row covers. And it just happened to be a new cover. The one that had been on there had gotten beaten up by the various elements and needed to be fully intact because I was planting squash in there as I harvested the cabbages. I hoped to delay the onslaught of squash bugs and cucumber beetles. So having a large hole torn in that row cover seemed a particular insult.

I waited a couple of days to patch the hole (with duct tape). The morning after I'd patched it, it was torn again, right next to the patch. At first I thought that the row cover was just weak there and the wind (we'd had a lot of it) just ripped it again. So I used more duct tape. The next day another rip! Aargh. Patch. Hmmm. Could it be that a mama bunny had hidden babies under the spreading leaves of the cabbages?

The next morning I stepped out onto the front steps to greet the sun and saw a hole in a different spot... aaaand a rabbit shoving her way through the row cover right next to the patch over the original holl -- FROM THE INSIDE! I am certain it was the very rabbit pictured above, as she is feeding on clover near that particular cabbage patch.

Bingo. My suspicions were correct. I pulled back the row cover and started tilting back cabbages. It didn't take long for me to discover the babies, fully furred and quite mobile, under one of the cabbages. I chased them out of the bed -- which took a few minutes because they split up and hid under other cabbages. Then I took off all the lower cabbage leaves, creating a less attractive hiding spot, chased out the last bunny and put the row cover back.

No more holes torn into the row cover. Problem solved. Now I can chuckle about actually finding babies in the cabbage patch.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Faster than a Speeding Bullet...

So much garden stuff happens in June. You would think that I'd be posting here every single day... maybe even more than once a day. So much garden stuff happens. I think about posting this and that, every little wonder that I see...

But, as I said, so much garden stuff happens. I go for days without even turning on the computer. When I do sit down and turn it on I'm often in a hurry, or more likely too tired to put effort into writing something. I might sit down thinking I'll post here, but when it comes to it, the energy just isn't there. It's been a long day in the garden. Or maybe I've failed to get the picture that I wanted to share and now it's too late for it. All this nature/garden stuff passes by with the speed of a bullet and the force of a speeding freight train. I sometimes feel as if I've been hit by that freight train. Didn't June just begin? Now we're suddenly well into July. Before you know it August will be here and I'll be in a frenzy dealing with tomatoes and green beans.
This is just a cool looking mushroom growing in the mulch on
the side of the garden. It looks like a little fairy house. I don't
know what kind of mushroom it is, but I thought it looked really
cool and I wanted to share the image.

It's only been a month since my last post but it seems like much longer... because so much garden stuff happens. The time for this post or that post has past.

So on this Sunday morning I'll get this one post in with a quick update and a couple of photos.

This morning, while it was still cool, my husband and I walked down our driveway and back (a total of a half mile, it's long for a driveway) and the spirits were rising from the pond. I'm not sure whether the mist rises because the water is warm and the air is cool, or vice versa. I do know that when the sun pops over the trees on the hill and hits the water, the spirits/mist rise up even more dramatically than can be seen in the above photo (taken at the end of May). Spirits rising from the water to greet the day. Water spirits or Air spirits? Does it matter?

As is usual, the water level in the pond is lower than when the photo was taken. By late fall -- barring any deluges between now and then -- the water in the pond will be just a memory. We could attempt to fix the leak again, but that would be thousands of dollars and no guarantee. Then we'd have to do something about the trees actually growing on the dam. No, the trees aren't causing the leak. It was doing that while they were barely noticeably seedlings. I'd love to keep the pond intact. But it's a good lesson in transience and the impermanent nature of all things. We're cool with that.

All good things (and bad things) come to an end, eventually. So I'll end here and share other goings on in another post. Ah yes, something to look forward to.